The Economic and Political Turmoil Ahead

A new study from Farleigh Dickinson University reveals that 29% of Americans believe an armed revolution may be necessary in the next few years to “protect liberties.”

18% of Democratic respondents shared this view, 27% of Independents and 44% of Republicans.

A decade ago, the notion that anyone other than a few thousand fringe extremists would contemplate violent revolution was unthinkable. At the very least, these results suggest a significant minority of Americans are profoundly disillusioned with the government’s apparent indifference to their needs and expectations.

The End of Growth: An Inconvenient Reality

Despite government claims to the contrary, recovery from the deflationary spiral that started in 2008 (aka The Recession) has been elusive. Although stock prices continue to soar, productivity, employment and consumer spending have stubbornly refused to return to pre-2008 levels. Some latter day (non-Wall Street) economists believe the era of economic growth has ended – permanently – owing to the soaring cost of fossil fuels. In their view, the world has returned to a steady state economy. Nearly all human cultures operated as steady state economies prior to the explosion of fossil fuel use in the late 19th century. Given the historic link between growth and “full” employment (jobless levels below than 10%), they predict the industrialized world is heading towards a scenario in which roughly half the adult population is unemployed. The paid work that remains will be low paid, part time, temporary jobs, unprotected by unions, employment rights or health and safety regulations.

To appreciate that US economic growth is at a standstill, it’s essential to look at undoctored economic data. For example, when Obama and the corporate media trumpeted a 7.5% unemployment rate for April, they neglected to mention that this figure only reflects the number of workers newly unemployed in the last six months (i.e. the number still receiving basic unemployment benefits). Unlike other countries, the official US jobless figure doesn’t include workers whose benefits have run out. A close look at Department of Labor data reveals that U-6, which includes workers who have dropped out of the labor force and part time workers seeking full time jobs, reveals that true unemployment actually rose by 1% in April to 13.9%. The Obama administration also neglected to report that out of 296,000 new jobs created last month, 278,000 were part time.

According to John Williams, founder of shadowstats.com, the government also manipulates GDP figures to make it appear the US economy is continuing to grow when the annual GDP increase over the last five years is virtually zilch.

The 2008 Economic Crash Was Predictable

Prominent members of the Peak Oil movement, most notably Michael Ruppert and Richard Heinberg, predicted the 2008 economic crash. They based their predictions on declining oil reserves, the failure of oil production to keep up with increasing demand from developing countries and the steep rise in oil prices that began in 2005.1 Based on their calculations, mankind had extracted half of the world’s available oil reserves by November 2005. This was officially known as Peak Oil. We reached Peak Natural Gas several years before that, though we won’t reach Peak Coal for another decade or so.

Although there still remains tons of oil, gas and coal left in the ground for us to extract and burn, we are now on a downward slope. Not only is production continuing to outstrip demand, but most of the remaining oil, natural gas and coal are difficult to get at, expensive to extract and rely on dangerous, expensive, environmentally destructive and controversial technologies, such as deep sea oil drilling, tar sands extraction fracking and mountain top removal.

Capitalism and Productivity

The steady economic expansion we call growth is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Prior to the 19th century, the major nations of the world operated steady state economies. In fact the argument Heinberg and others make is the burst of productivity most of the world attributes to capitalism had nothing to do with the capitalist economic model itself. Rather it was based on the widespread abundance of cheap fossil fuels. British economists at the Fiesta Institute provide abundant data justifying this argument in Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse. They point out that even at current oil prices, it costs far less to use a machine to perform work than to employ a human being or even a draft animal.

The birth of capitalism wasn’t just about the exploitation of fossil fuels. It was about the exploitation of all natural resources – clear cutting forests, large open pit mines to extract steal, copper, gold, bauxite (for aluminum), gold diamonds and rare earth minerals, draining swamps and eradicating wetlands. When oil started becoming more expensive (in the 1970s), it was also about moving western factories to third world countries to enable wholesale exploitation of human labor. Government encouraged this wholesale extraction and exploitation because it produced enormous prosperity for most of western society over many decades.

At the same time there were immense human and environmental costs. Western capitalism produced incalculable suffering in the third world as indigenous people were driven off the land that gave them a subsistence living, with the lucky ones obtaining jobs in brutal sweatshops that paid starvation wages. Suffering in the first world was less visible until last decade, when residents of the industrialized world began to realize they were being systematically poisoned with toxic industrial chemicals, increasing levels of both nuclear and microwave radiation and harmful organisms that had contaminated our air, water and food chain.

The Likelihood of Revolution

From this vantage point, it’s impossible to predict whether austerity and repression will lead to armed revolution. With much of southern Europe rioting in the streets, all eyes are on the US, the world’s largest economy and the so-called cradle of democracy. Will Americans passively accept and adjust to being systematically deprived of their livelihood, dignity, health and income. Or will they resist. If, so what will this resistance look like?

The answers to these questions will depend on four major unknowns:

1. Whether the billionaires and millionaires who control the levers of representative government can be pressured to share some of their immense wealth. Or whether the greed that drives them so pernicious and their control over government so absolute it can only be overcome through force?
2. Whether the current cold war with Iran and China escalates into full scale military conflict. A nuclear war with China can be expected to result in the total collapse of existing US corporate infrastructure.
3. The ultimate size of the resistance movement that ultimately seeks to end corporate rule. History suggests that “peaceful” revolutions are possible when at least 10% of the population actively mobilizes for change and that smaller insurgencies are more likely to be accompanied by violence.
4. Whether corporate-controlled governments will continue to allow the proliferation of non-corporate alternatives at the local and regional level – or if they will seek to outlaw and dismantle them by force.

Questions 3 and 4, which are linked, are the most important. In the 21st century, revolution won’t be a simple matter of the people taking back the reins of power from corporations. In an era where human survival is threatened by the near-total destruction of the biosphere (through catastrophic climate change and ocean acidification, water and resource scarcity, and chemical contamination of the food chain), we can anticipate that people will lead fundamentally different lives in any new society we create. Ironically, several million people worldwide already have a head start. Working through countless grassroots organizations, they have already begun to build, on a local and regional level, a new non-corporate society.

While governments worldwide struggle with debt, reduced productivity and massive unemployment, dramatic changes are occurring at the local and regional level in the way people relate to paid work, money, and meeting their basic survival needs. “Localization” and “design” are common themes across this movement. The former refers to people opting for local products produced by local small businesses – as opposed to products manufactured thousands of miles away by corporations that have no knowledge or interest in either their local needs or the long term survival of their community. The latter refers to the conscious application of design principles to production decisions, rather than allowing them to be driven by short-term profit considerations.

This new shift in consciousness is seen across a number of sectors. Below are only a few examples:

  • Work: in his two latest books, America Beyond Capitalism and What Then Must We Do, Guy Alperowitz writes about the millions of US workers who have opted out of the corporate work life by forming worker owned and run cooperatives.
  • Banking and money management: Tens of thousands of Americans are continuing to move their out of big corporate banks to local banks, credit unions and cooperative banks. There is also an explosion in local currency movement and barter systems such as Freecycle and non-bank local finance alternatives, including savings pools, crowdfunding, P2P lending, pre-sales contracts, consumer coops and local investment opportunity networks.
  • Energy: communities and small businesses, often with the support of state and local government, are working collectively to design and implement a profusion of “distributed” (i.e. local) renewable energy alternatives.
  • Architecture and manufacturing: in his 3rd book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, green architect Bill McDonough encapsulates several decades of experience of architects, manufacturers and urban designers endeavoring to incorporate nature’s design principles in architecture, manufacturing and urban design.
  • Food: according to Michael Ableman, author of Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, 25% of Americans presently eat locally produced organic food. This major shift in consumer demand has been accompanied by a massive uptake of permaculture and biointensive agriculture, which utilize “design” principles to triple the agricultural yields produced by industrial agriculture.

What’s currently unknown is whether the corporate elites who control our supposedly representative governments will allow these local and regional movements to grow and expand unhindered. Or if they will decide they pose too big a threat to profit interests and pressure government to outlaw and dismantle them by force.

In other words we may be looking at a new type of revolution that occurs mainly through evolution, with violence reserved for threats the corporate state poses to the new structures people have already created.

  1. Historically the oil price ranged between $2-4 a barrel prior to 1973 oil crisis. It remained between $10-20 a barrel until 1979. From 1979-1986 it fluctuated between $20-38 a barrel until 1986, when it dropped below $20 a barrel until 1989. It dropped below $20 a barrel very briefly in 1999. It hasn’t been below $40 a barrel since 2004. []

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.